Green-light the Greenhouse

June 25, 2023

Southern Highlands Reserve is thrilled to announce the launch of our capital campaign, “Green-light the Greenhouse.” At our kickoff fundraising event on a magnificent early July afternoon, we welcomed more than 100 guests — including Lake Toxaway neighbors, local and regional dignitaries, and U.S. Forest Service partners — to learn about our plans for a new nursery facility that will allow us to grow tens of thousands of red spruce trees to be planted on public lands with our partners. Thanks to early support from the National Forest Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority, and several significant family foundations, we are on our way to reaching our $2 million goal. But we need to grow our community of friends and partners to help ensure our success.

With our regional partners, we have planted thousands of our red spruce trees on public lands during the last decade to restore our region’s high elevation spruce-fir forests, which support a variety of rare and endangered plants and animals. Because our efforts have been so successful, the U.S. Forest Service has asked for our help in a much larger way — they want us to grow 50,000 more trees. Here at the heart of red spruce propagation in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, a new larger and more efficient nursery facility will accommodate these increased efforts.

We are honored to have the incredible opportunity to contribute to the health and longevity of our region’s natural resources. More than a decade ago, as our executive director, Kelly Holdbrooks, began building partnerships and spreading our reach, our director of horticulture, Eric Kimbrel, quietly began studying seeds and roots. He tested germination and stratification methods. He experimented with different soil substrates. And he discovered the perfect pot that coaxes the roots of young plants to grow strong and resilient. He produced a method of propagation that earns a 90 percent planting success rate in the wild, solidifying the foundation of our red spruce restoration efforts as Kelly built SHR’s network of partners across sectors and state lines.

The Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, of which we are a founding member, grew from state and national government agency leaders, colleges and universities, citizen scientists, and other nonprofits banding together to preserve, protect, and restore the spruce-fir ecosystem, which is the second-most endangered in the United States. This is a new path for environmental stewardship. Historically, like-minded organizations must compete against one another for funding and access. This new model is based on networking and uniting entities through personal relationships. By emulating trees and plants and their underground networks for communication and resource sharing, we can save rare and imperiled ecosystems and species.

The red spruce, the largest conifer indigenous to the Southern Appalachians, is an iconic and central piece of our region’s ecosystem. Through more than a century of logging, fire, pollutants, and parasites, the red spruce population in our mountains endured existential decline. The spruce-fir forests are home to two federally endangered species, the Carolina northern flying squirrel and the spruce-fir moss spider, which is the world’s smallest tarantula. Also living there are the northern saw-whet owl, red crossbill, brown creeper, black-capped chickadee, hoary bat, silver-haired bat, Weller’s salamander, pygmy salamanders, and a type of lichen called hot dots. The U.S. Forest Service has identified sixteen rare plant species found only in spruce-fir forests. As warming temperatures push more species northward and to higher elevations, red spruce matrons will provide refuge beneath their canopy.

Our nursery — at an elevation of 4,500 feet — perfectly mimics the natural climate and conditions of spruce-fir forests. Our 20-year-old hoop houses have served us well but cannot accommodate the scale or the technology we need as we increase production. The new greenhouse will provide new technology to improve efficiency and reduce energy expenditure. It will also more than double current capacity in the same footprint. It will offer enhanced opportunities for visitor education and a home to the dozens of other native plant species that we propagate for restoration projects as well as home gardens. As our red spruce propagation efforts increase, it will also be the nurturing first home for tens of thousands of saplings as they grow into hardy young trees. After two years of growth, they will be planted on public lands in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Planning and design are already underway, and we anticipate a grand opening in summer of 2024. The lead consultant for this project is Ron Determann, former vice president of the Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory at Atlanta Botanical Garden. Sitework Studios, which has developed plans for several Asheville-area parks, mixed-use areas, business and education institutions, gardens, and residences, has created our site design. Asheville-based Van Wingerden Greenhouse Company will manufacture the greenhouse. Established in 1972, Van Wingerden has built greenhouses for New York Botanical Garden, Atlanta Botanical Garden, Mt. Cuba Center, The University of Tennessee, Duke University, Metrolina Greenhouses, and others.

With 6,000 of our trees planted on public lands in three states, SHR is the only entity growing red spruce in such large numbers. We invite you to join us in our efforts by donating, volunteering, and spreading the word about our work. Together, we can restore our native plants to their original habitat and seed a new future for our forests and for generations to come.